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Why the EU-Turkey deal will not solve the refugee crisis

European Union

Co-editor Hazel Healy went on the Real News Network to discuss the EU-Turkey refugee deportation deal. This is what she said:

GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: My name is Gregory Wilpert and I'm coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. The European Union has begun to apply a deal that it reached with the government of Turkey to send refugees who landed in Greece back to Turkey. In the past year, over 1 million refugees travelled from countries in the Middle East, particularly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq to Turkey in the hopes of making it all the way to Europe.

WILPERT: Let's start with your concrete experience. You travelled to the island of Lesvos, Greece a couple of months ago which has been one of the main arrival points for refugees coming from Turkey. What did you see there? What was the situation like for the refugees?

HAZEL HEALY: I arrived on 28 of October to a small tourist town called Molyvos, I say town but it's more like a village. Actually earlier that day there had been a shipwreck – one of the most serious off of the island and 40 people were still missing – so my arrival on the island was more devastating than I was expecting, even after everything that I had read on the news about the crisis before that. In terms of the people who I actually met, I think we can read the statistics and hear that 95% percent of that make that crossing from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, around half of them are from Syria.

When you hear the personal stories, it helps you to relate to these people and the journeys that they are undertaking and the reasons they are fleeing. One man I met was Salman, who was a Syriac Christian from northern Syria. He joins the exodus of Christians from the Middle East that started with the war in Iraq and has carried on a pace with ISIS. He had lost his cousin that night – he hadn't come in on any rescue boats. Then another woman that I met was a Yazidi mother of two called Linda who had lost her 18-month-old son, Jude, earlier that day. He had drowned on the crossing.

The Yazidis from Iraq (like Linda), also have a well-founded case under the Refugee Convention but she was having to travel in this way and actually lose her child fleeing persecution by ISIS – who we all know in the West and the kind of terror that they can be responsible for. One other group I met were two Syrians, Amel and Majid who was a Master's of Economics student and he said that the reason he was leaving Syria was that it had got to the point where you either shoot a gun or you leave..

WILPERT: Was that kind of the situation for most of the people you talked to? That they were essentially escaping a civil war situation such as in Syria or Afghanistan?

HEALY: Or in Iraq... It was actually an extraordinary experience because there were people there from all over the world. I also met a Somali who called himself ‘Captain Phillips’ who was running away from Mogadishu after he had received death threats from Al Shabab for his work with a Western, microfinance NGO. But what I saw from everyone were either people fleeing war or in search of more sustainable, secure lives. And I was also told by more than one Syrian:

'If I could, I’d go back tomorrow', 'This isn't my choice’, ‘I'm just looking for a way out'.

WILPERT: Where did they say they were trying to get to? I assume that Greece was not their ultimate destination. Where were they hoping to go?

HEALY: In most cases, people had a family member who they were hoping to join. So Amal was hoping to join her husband in Berlin. The Yazidi woman, Linda, her parents were already in Germany and she was making her way towards them. I met another man from Iraq who had a brother in Switzerland. I even met an Iranian DJ who was hoping to join a cousin, I think it was, in Zurich. So really a range of motivations and also contacts and reasons for choosing different countries.

WILPERT: Well let's turn to the deal that was reached between the European Union and Turkey last month, which is beginning to be implemented now. People are being returned. You've been in touch with people, what have they been saying about this process of being returned to Turkey?

HEALY: Well, there are so many concerns about this deal. I mean, its legality is questionable on many fronts. The first is that, how can you be sure that the people that are returned to Turkey have had their asylum claim properly evaluated in that time? Of the first 202 who were deported amid much fanfare and media attention on Monday, 13 of those, the Greek authorities have said, 'Oh sorry that was a mistake, we haven't actually finished processing their asylum claims.'

So that’s hardly encouraging. The second point is that Turkey is not a safe country to return people to so that means if you do return asylum seekers to that country, you’re guilty of something called ‘refoulement’. So under the Refugee Convention, you cannot return people to a place where they're at risk of further persecution. So Amnesty has been documenting how on the boarder with Syria, Turkey has been returning people to Syria, pushing them back over the boarder illegally so it’s not a safe place for Syrians, and even less so for the other nationalities.

You also have all sorts of people swept up in this deal. You have Eritreans who are phoning up advocates saying, 'Well what about us?' 'Will we be sent back to Turkey?' 'Where can we claim asylum?' Because Turkey isn’t even a full signatory to the Refugee Convention so there are so many worries that people have about people being able to access the protection that they're legally entitled to if they're sent back to Turkey.

WILPERT: From what you've seen of the situation there, certainly also I think in addition to Amnesty International criticizing the Turkey EU deal, they have also been criticising the camps in Greece themselves, including the one I think that you visited in Lesbos which is one of the largest. What do you think would be the solution to this problem that apparently, even though Europe is saying that they are going to take them in, then at the same time returning them to Turkey, what should be done? What would be a better solution to this situation?

HEALY: There's an easy answer to that and it's safe, legal pathways and you also need a global response. I don't think this can just be a European response. But if you start with Europe, if you take the Resettlement Program, which is the only safe legal pathway that’s been offered to the refugees currently. It was 160,000 places were pledged, that was the target, and of those, 660 people have been relocated within Europe which is 0.4% of that promised total. So you can shut the door, slam the door in the faces of the refugees, and if you don't offer them any other way to reach safety, they will carry on coming and they will come by another route. So people are already reporting high numbers of crossings from Libya which is a very dangerous route and even more people died traveling that route last year than they did coming via Greece.

You have to provide people another option, a safe option, a means by which they can have viable lives for themselves and their families because otherwise it's just like the war on drugs. It's just like a displacement effect – a balloon effect. It's a supply-centric effort – you have to look at the reasons people leave, that they are seeking safety and sustainable lives. You need to look at the pull factors such as the labour market and jobs in those destination countries that are also in need of workers. And you need to think about our intervention abroad as the industrialized North. And until you think on those things, and act on them, this crisis isn't going to go away.

WILPERT: One thing that has really impressed me in reading about the situation is that practically all of the media always insist on referring to them as ‘migrants’. What do you think about the usage of that term, given the situation that you've experienced of the people who are fleeing their countries and trying to enter Europe?

HEALY: It's a good question and there are two things going on here... Firstly there is a global displacement crisis. The Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil and that is generating a lot of refugees, conflict refugees. At the same time there are other people on the same pathways who are brought, with slightly different motivations and slightly different push factors. But what you find is that actually the ‘neat’ categories of refugees or migrants don't always fit the people who are on the road. For example if you take Syrians, who leave, who flee the war so that they are safe from the bombs but they are in Lebanon and they are getting deeper and deeper into debt and they can’t establish viable lives there. They practice what’s called ‘secondary migration’ and it’s the same for Eritreans who escape the repressive regime. They get as far as Sudan, they have no options there, they have no way of surviving there, so they just keep moving until they get to a place where they think they can build a new life.

Then you might have people who are commonly categorized as economic migrants like Pakistanis or Nigerians who are actually fleeing localized violence – which isn't well-publicized but actually would have a good case even under the Refugee Convention. The question becomes more, how can we update the Convention to adapt to the realities of the world we are living in to encompass the different kinds of people who are coming and the things that they are looking for?

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